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Fukushima: As Radiation Levels Increase off the US West Coast, Can Ocean Life be Unaffected?

Updated on March 2, 2014

As I sat down to lunch outside of a local café here in San Diego I happened to notice the muffled laughter of a couple older teen boys having a coffee drink right across from my table. It was a very warm February afternoon in San Diego that day and most of the few patrons at the cafe were sitting outside. Curious about the laughter, I paid a bit closer attention to notice the boys pointing at a chalkboard easel sign, common to outdoor cafés, with “today’s lunch special” neatly drawn in colored chalk, and just below that, “Tuna Salad Special - $6.95”. The café manager had made a grave error and left the chalk out in a chalk tray just below the sign. As I watched, the boys finished-up their addition. The sign now read “Fukushima Tuna Salad Special - $6.95”. I have to admit that they initially misspelled Fukushima with an “A”, but I quietly corrected them. The second U, not the first.

This more or less describes how the nuclear disaster resulting from the tsunami that came ashore at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has affected the everyday thoughts and lives of Californians, if not everyone on the U.S. west coast. While we’re told everything is fine and fish from the Pacific are safe to eat, most of us still think twice before going out for sushi or ordering the tuna salad for lunch. It’s not like they’ve ever been wrong or anything and it’s certainly not like they’ve never lied. Nonetheless, our love for fresh Pacific fish usually wins out as it’s so much tastier to be a believer, than a doubter.

Yellow Fin Tuna migrate from waters of Fukushima prefecture into warmer waters off the Baja California.
Yellow Fin Tuna migrate from waters of Fukushima prefecture into warmer waters off the Baja California. | Source

Nuclear Engineer Dr. Arjun Makhijani confirmed that ocean currents are carrying the radioactive water to US coast.

Pacific seafood safe, despite 300 tons a day of radioactive water flowing freely.

The first plume of radioactive cesium-137 from Fukushima is thought to have only recently begun its arrival into U.S. coastal waters and it’s not expected to peak until sometime in 2016. Reports show ever increasing amounts of radioactive contamination in waters off the U.S. Pacific coast. Although with few exceptions experts and media alike remain optimistic about any risks to sea life, and particularly optimistic about the risk of consuming sea-food, now or in the future.

Several months ago, the majority of the mainstream media seemed to agree that all is well in the future of pacific tuna salad and the so called cover-up, originally perpetrated by the Japanese government had not spread to USA to threaten the west coast fish industry. Preliminary testing returned only slightly elevated levels of radioactivity and so the news spread. Even with a reported 300 tons of contaminated water flowing daily from the damaged reactors at Fukushima most experts agreed that there is little call for alarm. Most of us living on the coast were relieved to hear that eating seafood or going to the beach for the afternoon was just as safe as eating a banana or a 100 banana’s for that matter, and the spicy tuna roll would remain on the menu despite the worsening disaster in Japan. Rumors had made many cautious, but as articles of the good news began to spread to nearly every news-site and blog, all but the natural health fanatics, nuclear activists and followers of conspiracy theories, began to bring fish back into their diets once again. Wait a minute, that might be most of the west coast, or at least a majority.

If the reports are true where is all the doom and gloom conspiracy hubbub coming from and is there any substance to it at all? Will things change as more and more radiation arrives in U.S. waters?

Damaged #2 reactor in the days after the tsunami and meltdown..

Radiation has often been reported safe, when it wasn’t.

Could this be reminiscent of times early in the 19th century when so-called “harmless” radioactive wonder-cures and miraculous gadgets could be found in every household, radiating every human and non-human inhabitant without warning? As I recall, cancer rates sored before the government and the press put an end to that fraudulent but lucrative industry. Or what of the nuclear bomb testing that exposed hundreds of US troops to radiation? Wasn’t that covered up even long after many of the soldiers had been diagnosed or died of cancer and other ailments? The fact is, when you look back at news stories involving radiation, it’s a struggle to find a single one that hasn’t at least begun with some form of deception and most often the deception continued until the story was no longer news.

There certainly has been a consistent pattern of deceit when it comes to radiation. I’m no conspiracy nut but who wouldn’t be suspicious in the face of the historic record on file? Instances of the public getting an honest report from the beginning seem rare if not absent altogether. Nevertheless, anyone who doesn’t buy the reports that the radiation cannot do damage this far from the source, is a conspiracy theorist or some kind of kook, suffering from paranoid delusions. This is what doubting the mainstream has come down to, even though there are countless examples of public deception that can be sited, past and recent. Of course this doesn’t mean that seafood isn’t safe and we’re being misled to save the Pacific fish industry or any of the other industries dependent on the health of the Pacific Ocean. Though it does infer that it might be prudent to continue to monitor the stories and studies, as well as taking note of the sources, and what they might have to gain from reporting one way or the other.

Consistently, reactor closings mark a steep decline in cancer rates.

In a March 2013 a paper was published titled “Drop in Cancer after Closure of California Reactor Shows Need for Full Review of Low-Level Radiation Risks,” written by Epidemiologist Dr. Joseph Mangano and toxicologist Dr. Janette Sherman of the RPHP (Radiation and Public Health Project). The paper outlined a marked decline in cancer rates of men; women and children, in Sacramento County after the Sacramento plant went idle with evidence for similar declines where other reactors around the country had gone offline or shutdown. Little has been reported on the issue since the March paper was published for peer review in Biomedicine International. Although unscientific debunking articles did appear in the months after, at this point there seems to be little real evidence to dispute the findings. Articles in a Pennsylvania business publication, Biz570.com featured an article stating “nuclear energy advocates disagreed with the study” and await the results of another study by the National Academy of Sciences. That study is still underway.

Average Tuna migration route suggests larger contaminated ocean life could migrate into waters off North America.

Pacific fish may be safe, but how safe and for how long?

The primary issue is whether Pacific fish off the US coast remains safe for human consumption, given the rapid spread of radiation drifting across the Pacific Ocean and the steadily increasing, but still reported safe, levels of radiation. But not all radiation is the same. While there are several forms of radiation that have been released at Fukushima, there are three forms of isotopes of concern to US coastal waters. Cesium-137, Strontium-90 and Plutonium-239.

Cesium-137 has a 30 year half-life, or takes 30 years to decay and emits flesh penetrating gamma rays which taken up by the cells throughout the soft tissues of the body when consumed. C-137 raises the cancer risk significantly at moderate levels and can cause acute radiation sickness. However, C-137 does not attach permanently to tissues and is thought to be eliminated from the body in weeks or months.

Strontium-90 seeks out bone and blood-forming tissue (bone marrow) to bond with. One of the larger concerns is that 20-30% of ingested Sr-90 is absorbed and deposited in the bone and cannot be removed. This internal exposure is linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissues near the bone, and leukemia. The risk of cancer increases with continued and/or increased exposure. Due to its ability to act as calcium it cannot be cleaned up from the ocean once in contact with calcium latent sea creatures.

Plutonium is present in the nuclear fuel of the reactors and in the spent fuel rods. You don’t hear as much about it because in the very early days of the Fukushima disaster officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that the presence of plutonium does not add significantly to the dangers. However, it may be important to mention the potential danger of plutonium should significant amounts be released over time. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years and remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years. Although radioactive isotopes with long half-lives are generally less radioactive than those with short half-lives, as a rule it takes much longer for them to decay.

To believe, or Not to believe, that seems to be the question.

What will happen if more and more cesium continues to wash up on the shores of North America? In going over the professional appraisals of the data, experts don’t appear to agree and that should be concerning for every fish lover, regardless of whether you accept the current consensus of seafood safety.

Living in Southern California, the land of organic fast food and yoga breaks at work, often referred to as the left coast, I know several people who have given up their seafood diets leaning on the side of caution. However, upon closer inspection of the news reports and current affairs blogs, it could be those that have made the decision to avoid seafood have taken their position based less on scientific reports, and more as part of their overall lifestyle statement. To put it simply, it’s become somewhat fashionable to question the mainstream. Leaving those looking to distance themselves from the fashionable no choice but to go along with the reports and continue consuming Pacific fish. It sounds ridiculous? It is.

In the months of September and October of 2013, several ecologically minded scientists weighed in on the side of caution, saying that fish from the Pacific could be dangerous and the best advice was to avoid eating it. Others said while the fish may not be dangerous now, things could change any given day as the amounts of cesium continue to increase as the radiation moves in unpredictable and irregular levels across the ocean. Although the majority of the authorities explained the levels detected were far below dangerous and didn’t recommend any changes or warnings on Pacific fish consumption. Published reports and blog comparisons began to poke fun at the naysayers, saying things like “only 5% of the radiation that you get from eating one banana”, and “12% of the radiation you’re exposed to during one cross country flight from LA to New York”, or “far less than a chest x-ray”. Perhaps even more interesting, the naturally occurring radioactive isotopes in bluefin tuna (potassium-40 and polonium-210) were greater by orders of magnitude than the levels of isotopes from Fukushima contamination (cesium-40 and cesium-137). The levels of polonium-210 naturally occurring in tuna were 600 times greater than the cesium from Fukushima. Very interesting indeed and enough to suggest that the experts calling for a ban on fish might be a bit fishy.

Dr. Robert Emery of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston says you would need to eat 2.5 to 4 tons of tuna in a year to get a dose of cesium-137 in excess of health limits, which would require the consumption of 15-20 pounds of tuna. That’s a lot of sushi. Considering that the average American consumes more than 17 pounds of fish and shellfish each year, and those living on the coasts consume approximately twice as much.

If we factor that in with the fact that strontium isotopes remain in the bone permanently, that means that every year that an American continues to eat fish from the pacific, their strontium levels increase. Granted it adds up to far less than the 15-20 tons, but the fact that something known to bond to bone and cause cancer is accumulating my body, regardless of how harmless its said to be, sort of gives me the creeps. And all of that is based strictly on the assumption that everything in the news is on the level. I’m just guessing but I doubt that every pound of Pacific fish doesn’t contain the exact same level of radiation as every other pound. We still do not know what levels of Strontium-90 have been found in fish caught off US coastal waters, just that the levels are far lower than that of Cesium-137.

The scientific community has become more divided on Pacific seafood concerns.

University of Southern California professor Dr. Daniel Stram said in an interview with CBS Los Angeles reporter Juan Fernandez that “there’s no danger from Fukushima with the fish that we eat.” Although the interview was done at the Fish King restaurant in Glendale California where owner Jon Kagawa had pulled the imported bluefin tuna from the menu due to the report that claimed radiation levels in bluefin tuna were of the charts. Kagawa said: "I think for the most part we try to take everything with a bit of caution nowadays. It’s kind of like information overload, and you really don’t know how true the information really is."

Kagawa’s statement speaks to exactly why the media reports continue to be divided. Even those who seldom pay much, if any attention to the conspiracy theories of the day, still maintain a reasonable amount of doubt that all may not be as it seems, particularly when the subject is as controversial as radioactivity in our Oceans.

There is little doubt that one government has not been completely honest regarding the subject. Since the earthquake and tsunami that initially damaged the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, both TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) and the government of Japan have understated the damage and the risks associated with the leaking reactors. On July 22nd of 2013 TEPCO came under severe criticism with their belated acknowledgment that contaminated water continues to leak consistently from the reactor. Shunishi Tanaka, head of Japans Nuclear Regulation Authority told reporters

“that it’s probably been happening since an earthquake and tsunami touched off the disaster in March 2011. A report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety said that “the initial breakdown caused the largest single contribution of radionuclide's to the marine environment ever observed."

We now know that some of that release of contaminated water was intentional, because TEPCO actually reportedly dumped 3 million gallons of contaminated water with low levels of radiation into the Pacific to make room in its storage ponds for more heavily contaminated water. Or at least that’s what they eventually said. But even after the initial crisis eased, scientists continued to find radioactive contamination in the waters off the coast of Japan.

Regardless, we know without question that the Fukushima nuclear disaster is unprecedented and the outcomes cannot be accurately predicted if predicted at all. There has never been a nuclear disaster of this potential magnitude this near the ocean, or even inland for that matter. That fact alone is enough to make you second-guess anyone claiming to be qualified to make a determination so vital to so many. Much-less while radioactive seawater continues to pour into the Pacific at a rate of 300 tons a day, with no other incident to compare it to in human history.

In an August 2013 article in National Geographic, Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who analyzes samples of fish from the area, said he’s continued to find the high levels of cesium-134, which indicate that it’s still being released. “It’s getting into the ocean, no doubt about it” he said. “The only news was that they finally admitted to this.” Evidence that the deceit continues from TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.), which in Japan, is an arm of the Japanese government.

The director of the Radiation Biology Center at Kyoto University, Minoru Takata, told the Wall Street Journal that the radioactive water doesn’t pose an immediate health threat unless a person goes near the damaged reactors. However, over the longer term he’s concerned that the leakage could cause higher rates of cancer in Japan. Marine scientist Ken Buesseler believes that the leaks pose little threat to Americans and said: “Radioactive contamination is quickly reduced by many orders of magnitude after it moves just a few miles from the original source, so that by the time it would reach the U.S. coast, the levels would be extremely low.”

Buesseler’s research has shown that local fish from the Fukushima area show high levels of radiation. High enough that the Japanese government won’t allow them to be caught and sold, a restriction that is costing Japanese fishermen billions of dollars a year in lost income. Buesseler says that cesium contamination is different than other types of radiation contamination in that larger fish that travel long distances in the ocean quickly lose any cesium contamination they’ve picked up. “Cesium is like salt or potassium, it goes in and out of your body quickly,” he explained.

“However, strontium-90 that is now in the outflow poses a trickier problem, because it is a bone-seeking isotope.” Buesseler says he is not “too concerned” that fish caught off the U.S. coast will be affected, “strontium changes the equation for the Japanese fisheries, as to when their fish will be safe to eat”.

There was little mention that Strontium-90 substitutes itself for calcium in bone, preventing expulsion from the body of any life form with bone or shell, permanently. Its half-life, or the time it takes it to decay, is at least 27.5 years. None of this is good news since the massive amount of strontium-90 flowing from Fukushima into the Pacific daily will reside somewhere in the ocean and much of it will no doubt find its way into bone or shell of many living things. Many of which are seafood and those that aren’t seafood are food for the seafood.

Video with recent radiation details and time-lapse of movement eastward.

Does any evidence exist that the coming danger is greater than reported?

Buesseler’s statements seem quite similar to many, but certainly not most, of the reports that I have read. Some scientist fall short of making claims that fish caught off the U.S. coast will continue to be safe regardless of how long the leaking reactor continues to contaminate the Pacific. While just as many others insist no harm will come to consumers. Far larger numbers of articles are written by bloggers, reporters and self-proclaimed skeptics criticizing conspiracy theorists, most of whom with little scientific knowledge, site the scientist who claim there is no danger. Despite the fact that other respected scientists warn that things could change, and we need to monitor the situation closely. This seems like sensible advice, often drowned out by those poking fun at those calling for caution.

It is in fact true that every single tuna caught off the coast of California has been found to emit the three most immediately concerning types of radioactive particles, cesium-134, cesium-137 and Strontium-90. Yes, the same cesium emits dangerous gamma rays and yes these levels of particle emissions are in the safe range. However, as pointed out above, tuna are larger fish that travel long distances in the ocean and quickly lose any cesium contamination they’ve picked up, so why are these particles still at detectable levels? Could this mean that the levels may increase, or only that they have not decreased as predicted?

Are our oceans dying since Fukushima?

We often hear the reports on the levels of radioactivity of contaminated fish and shellfish, and how they are safe for consumption, but we don’t often hear how dangerous those same levels are to the sea life itself. Healthy thriving oceans are a staple of human life. We cannot survive without them and we cannot survive well if they are not healthy.

Another recent study, reported in January by Natural News, headlined:
“Study: Dead sea creatures cover 98% of ocean floor off California coast; up from 1 percent before Fukushima”.
The first line in the story sited: “The Pacific Ocean appears to be dying, according to a new study recently published in the journal proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.

The study outlines that over the 24 years that Scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California have been monitoring dead sea creatures on the floor of the Pacific, the current number is 96% higher than it has ever been. The spike from 1% to 98% has occurred since the Fukushima melt down. It might be important to point out that the researchers involved with the work have been reluctant to site Fukushima as a potential cause.

National Geographic, which also covered the study, did not even mention Fukushima. Although the timing of the discovery suggests that Fukushima is very likely the cause. While the results sited were from a testing station 145 miles off the California coast, west of Santa Barbara and Monterey, other testing stations throughout the Pacific returned similar figures. Carried Arnold for National Geographic writes:
“In March 2012 less than one percent of the seafloor was covered in dead sea creatures. By July 1, more than 98 percent of it was covered in the decomposing organisms. ... ” She continues with no mention of Fukushima or suggestions of any other potential causes.

If this trend continues to remain at these levels, no optimistic science can deny the very scary fact that the Pacific Ocean may be dying. No more sea life means no more oxygen in earth’s atmosphere.

The Natural News article goes so far to state that “it is almost as if the powers that be want us all to forget about Fukushima and the catastrophic damage it continues to cause to our planet. …”

It’s easy to point out that much of the fatalist material comes from naturalist or other publications that held a far left of center, or exaggerated “save the earth” agenda long before Fukushima became a household word. In fact, under normal circumstances, the scientific and educational communities in general can tend to lean in that direction. At the same time, we cannot ignore that the studies they have sited are factual scientific studies and there could be very serious reasons for concern.

What if? What if the ocean is dying? What if these lower levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90 found in US coastal waters are far more dangerous than we had previously thought? What if the predictions of maximum radiation levels are wrong? Worse yet, what if the radiation levels off the North America Pacific Coastline are in fact safe for humans, but deadly to our sea life? The stakes are far too high to not consider these worst case scenarios. The Fukushima disaster is many times over more disastrous than Chernobyl or any past nuclear accident. The next time you read a report playing down the disaster, or claiming that the situation is far worse than reported, consider which claim does the most damage to the world, our lives and those of our children, if we do nothing. This is all about more, far more, than just tuna salad.

© 2014 Steve Garton

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    • tata799 profile image

      Tarek Nofal. 2 years ago from Kuwait

      great hub..... its confirms my hub i think